Thursday, November 4, 2010


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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This edition of Stam Torah is lovingly dedicated in memory of my rebbe and Zayde:

R’ Yaakov Meir ben R’ Yosef Yitzchok zt’l, whose yahrtzeit is on 27 Cheshvan.




World War II.

Nazi occupation of Poland.

Thousands of Poles were forced to leave their homes to work in German factories. Jews were sent en masse to Concentration Camps.

Typhus is an infectious disease spread by body lice that is often fatal. At that time there was no cure and vaccinations were scarce. The German army dreaded the disease because in unsanitary wartime conditions, it could race through a regiment. So doctors who suspected that a patient had typhus were required to submit blood samples to German-controlled laboratories for testing.

Jews who tested positive were shot and their houses burned. Non-Jews were quarantined or sent to special hospitals.

Suddenly in the city of Rozwadow in Southeastern Poland non-Jews began testing positive for Typhus. With time the Germans were forced to quarantine Rozwadow and the surrounding villages. The quarantine kept the beastly German soldiers out of the area and spared its residents from German brutality.

It was too late for the Jews who lived in Rozwadow who had already been sent to the Camps. But for many Jews who were hiding out around the villages, the fact that the Nazis didn’t enter that area for the duration of the war saved them.

Years after the war it was discovered that the epidemic was a hoax.

When the Nazis overran Poland in World War II, 29 year old Dr. Eugene Lazowski yearned to find a way to fight back, to protect human life, and he seized upon a paradoxical instrument of salvation--the German army's profound fear of disease. Lazowski slyly used medical science to save the lives of thousands of Jews and other Poles in twelve Polish villages. He and a fellow physician - Stanislaw Matulewicz, - faked a typhus epidemic that forced the German army to quarantine the villages.

The accepted test for typhus at that time consisted of mixing a certain strain of killed bacteria with a blood sample from the patient. Under proper laboratory conditions, if the patient had typhus, the blood sample would turn cloudy.

Matulewicz devised a way to do the test on his own, and in the process he stumbled upon a curious discovery--if a healthy person were injected with the bacteria, that person would suffer no harm but would test positive for typhus.

Lazowski and Matulewicz injected the killed bacteria into every non-Jewish patient who suffered from a fever or exhibited other typhus like symptoms. They did not do so to Jewish patients knowing what the consequences of such a prognosis would be for the Jew. They sent blood samples from the patients to the German-controlled lab. And, sure enough, every patient tested positive for typhus.

So as not to draw suspicion to themselves, the two doctors referred many of their patients--after injecting them with the bacteria--to other doctors who weren't in on the ruse. These doctors would "discover" the typhus on their own and report it separately. Better yet, when a patient really did have typhus, Lazowski and Matulewicz publicized the case as much as possible--but only if the patient was not Jewish.

Within a few months, the Germans became alarmed. One by one, "Achtung, Fleckfieber!" (Warning, Typhus!) signs went up in surrounding villages, until a dozen towns with a total of about 8,000 people were under quarantine.

The deportation of workers to Germany from these areas was stopped. German troops kept their distance. Villagers began to feel more relaxed. And only Lazowski and Matulewicz knew there was no epidemic.

They told no one, not even their wives. They saved hundreds of lives by inventing the first – and only – benevolent germ warfare.

After years of prayers and tears, G-d finally hearkened to the prayers of Yitzchak and Rivka and Rivka became pregnant. “The children struggled within her, and she said, ‘If so, why am I thus?’ And she went to inquire of G-d. And G-d said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb; two regimes from your insides shall be separated; the might shall pass from one regime to the other, and the elder shall serve the younger’.1

It is clear that this ordeal was not simply a matter of Rivka being unable to tolerate the intense pains of pregnancy. Rivka understood that the children she would bear would be responsible for the continuity of the traditions and lifestyle of her husband and father-in-law. Therefore when she sensed an incongruity in the child’s behavior while yet in the womb, she panicked.

When the children were born their diverse personalities were immediately apparent. “Esav became one who knows trapping, a man of the field; but Yaakov was a wholesome man, abiding in tents (of Torah)2.” The Torah relates that Yitzchok possessed a special love for Esav, while Rivka loved Yaakov.

Rabbi Meir Shapiro zt’l explains that Rivka’s prenatal concerns and the subsequent seeming preferential love that Yitzchak and Rivka had for their respective sons, is inextricably connected to the seminal first encounter between them.

“Yitzchak went out to speak in the field towards evening and he raised his eyes and saw, and behold camels were coming! And Rivka raised her eyes and saw Yitzchak; and she fell off from on the camel3.”

The Medrash4 explains that Yitzchak’s ‘speech’ was actually prayer, as the gemara5 relates, “Avrohom enacted the morning prayers, Yitzchak enacted the afternoon prayers, Yaakov enacted the evening prayers.”

A Jew stands in prayer before his Creator three times every day, to ask for his needs, and to strengthen his faith. In addition, the three time-periods of prayer symbolize three eras of time in Jewish history.

The morning prayers, recited when the sun is rising and the world begins to become illuminated, symbolize the golden ages of our people, when our monarchy was established, the Temple stood in Jerusalem, and Torah was abided. Conversely, the evening prayers symbolize the most ominous times in our history when things were bleak and frightening during the many periods of destruction and exile that we have endured.

These two periods do not detract us from prayer. When life is good and we are physically and spiritually secure we call out to G-d in thanksgiving, and clearly feel His embrace. When we feel frightened and forlorn too we cry out to G-d for salvation and redemption, knowing that we have no else to turn to but Him.

Dovid Hamelech expressed these two diverse sentiments when he declared6, “Pain and sorrow I have encountered, and the Name of G-d I will call; A chalice of salvation I will raise and the Name of G-d I will call.” Both in times of sorrow and salvation we turn to G-d.

However, there is an interim period that is neither day nor night. That is the time that our Sages refer to as bain hashmashos (twilight). The day has begun to wane and the sun is making its rapid descent beneath the horizon, but the darkness of night has not yet shrouded the skies. It’s a period of confusion - neither day nor night, a reality of its own.

This period of the day reflects times in our history of spiritual befuddlement and confusion. It is a time when we enjoy certain freedoms and widening of our limitations, yet at the same time suffering from precarious and perilous ensnaring that we must be wary of.

It was during this uncertain period that Yitzchak went out to the field to pray. The Mincha prayer is recited in the afternoon when the sun is beginning to set but the night has not yet arrived. It was specifically Yitzchak, who personifies spiritual strength and is undaunted by the luring temptations of this world, who is able to pray and connect with his Creator during that time of day.

The Torah relates that Rivka and Eliezer were riding camels when she saw Yitzchak in the distance for the first time. A camel is one of the few animals which possess one of the symbols that render an animal kosher but not the other7. In that sense the camel represents the time period of perplexity - when the boundaries of pure and impure are somewhat obscured. It is while camels approach in the distance that Yitzchak recites Mincha to strengthen within himself the demarcation between light and dark, pure and impure.

Rivka, truly worthy of her role as the great Matriarch, realized the symbolism of this dynamic encounter. She understood the time period for which Yitzchak prayed and she was seized with fright. When things are unclear and boundaries become clouded it is ever so much harder to maintain one’s faith. Thus, “she fell off from on the camel,” she feared the consequences of a world symbolized by the camel and how hard it would be to maintain faith during that time.

When Rivka became pregnant and realized that within her womb was a fetus that contained both a penchant for good and evil, the fear she felt at the time of her initial encounter with Yitzchak was reawakened. She feared that she had a child who would be confused, possessing both a desire for spiritual greatness and an insatiable craving for sin. She feared that her child would be unable to withstand such an inner challenge, and so she sought the Word of G-d.

Yitzchak however was undaunted. He did not share his wife’s fears of what might become of such a child because he personally was able to withstand such confusion.

Rivka was then informed that there were in fact two different children – two different worlds – that would emerge from her womb. Despite the pain of hearing that one of her children would have an inclination for evil, Rivka was assuaged. She understood that a child who sets out on an evil path may one day repent and return, but a child who is befuddled may never realize how spiritually ill he is and may never repent.

The difference in outlook between Yitzchak and Rivka manifested itself in their relationship with their children. Yitzchak, the symbol of strength and spiritual control, saw the potential within Eisav and so he loved him dearly. He wanted to give Eisav the blessings to help keep him true to his mission and destiny. But Rivka who grew up in the lap of wickedness and sin understood that Eisav would be unable to withstand the tests he would face and so she loved Yaakov, who possessed the light of Torah and its study.

The Shacharis prayer is recited before one engages in his daily affairs while the Ma’ariv prayer is recited after one has concluded his work and is returning home. Many people have fixed study sessions before leaving to work while others have sessions in the evening after a full day at the office. But Mincha is recited in the middle of the day. While we are in the middle of engaging in our daily pursuits replete with meetings, deadlines, phone-calls, etc. we have an obligation to put everything on hold so that we can spend a few moments in quite meditation and reflection praying to G-d. That is the prayer of Yitzchak, the clarity of prayer in midst confusion and distraction.

This idea should sound very familiar to us because our world is “a world of Mincha”. In the Western World we enjoy freedoms and comforts that our ancestors could hardly dream of. We have achieved notoriety, success, and wealth that no previous generation had. At the same time our generation is spiritually feeble and in grave danger. The insidious distractions of the outside world have crept into our communities and threaten us very deeply.

Perhaps the greatest example of this concept is symbolized by the internet. In our time internet has become virtually ubiquitous. There is so much value on the internet, including endless amounts of Torah – audio, video, and written. Yet at the same time the lurking dangers of the internet hardly need to be enumerated. There is hardly a more glaring example of a confusion of the greatest good and the greatest evil. It is of the greatest challenges our people has ever faced.

In our society things which appear to be good can be noxious, and vice-versa. Ours is a world of confusion and shades of gray.

It was of challenges such as this, and of such a society, that caused Rivka to fall off her camel in fear. Yitzchak taught us that at such times we must pray Mincha.

The gemara says that Elijah the prophet’s prayers were answered during the time of the Mincha prayers8. The gemara explains that Mincha is an especially propitious time for one’s prayers to be answered. It is a time of day when we are harried and busy. Yet we devote a few moments to remind ourselves that all of our efforts are in the hands of G-d. Those prayers are especially potent and valuable.

In that sense we can say that in ‘a world of Mincha’, a stressful world of busyness when we are so bedraggled and overwhelmed and it is so challenging to find clarity and remain faithful, all of our prayers are so valuable and precious before G-d. We pray that we have the spiritual vitality of Yitzchak to not be intimidated “by the dawn’s early light”. We believe that very soon the dawn will turn to eternal day, but until then we need to remain firm and committed.

“Yitzchak went out to speak in the field”

“Rivka fell off from on the camel”

1 25:22-23
2 Ibid, v. 27
3 24:63-64
4 Bereishis Rabbah 60:14
5 Berachos 27b
6 Tehillim 116
7 A camel chews its cud but does not have split hooves
8 Berachos 6b – during the ‘showdown’ with the false ba’al prophets atop of Mount Caramel


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